Just Finished Reading: The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard (FP: 1957)
Post war America had a problem, actually a gigantic problem. During WW2 the US had become the de facto ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ producing war products on a staggering scale. Once the war was done though this manufacturing capacity – especially for military products – was no longer required in anything like that amount. So as factories converted back to civilian use it was soon discovered that domestic demand was nowhere near enough to sustain that kind of production. America’s natural overseas consumers where still recovering from the wars destruction and it was going to take some time before they could buy American products. It was down to the US consumer to take up the slack. But the average American, rich as they were (comparatively with the rest of the planet) could only buy so much or, put bluntly, wanted so much. They needed to be encouraged to consume more but standard advertising just wasn’t cutting it. Something new was required. Fortunately something new was readily available – Psychology, Psychiatry and Social Anthropology. These comparatively new social sciences were just the things that Madison Avenue needed to boost sales and boost them they did – spectacularly. With ever more sophisticated techniques being used and with more and more agencies getting on board with the new way of doing things America experienced a consumer boom the likes of which had not been seen before. Profits increased month on month, products left the factories and warehouses on the way to American (and later foreign) homes and everyone was happy – except for the end user who, to maintain economic growth, had to be forever dissatisfied with the products he now owned and the life he now lived. Welcome to the Consumer Society.
Looking back over 50 years after this classic expose of the new marketing techniques first print run the author sounds sweetly naïve. If he assessed today’s advertising industry with the same eyes he would be both shocked and appalled. The first thing that jumped out at me in this admittedly fascinating slim volume was the fact that the solution to ‘over production’ of actually cutting back on manufacturing rather than coming up with clever ways to convince people to buy things they didn’t need (or often want) with money they didn’t have (interestingly the author talked about the possibility of a future debt crisis and wondered about the rationality of an economy based on consumer borrowing) to impress people they didn’t know or like. More than one reference was made to car manufacturers who ignored the consumer requests for more fuel efficiency and, instead, produced larger cars so that their profit margin increased – manipulating their customer base to believe that bigger cars were a sign of success (and manliness) whist at the same time convincing their wives that big means safe no matter how they actually drove. The other thing that truly fascinated me throughout the entire work was, most likely, completely unintended. As with many older books the author was leaving many things either unstated or unjustified because they were obvious to everyone – himself and his readership. For example there was no need to explain or defend the patriarchy or even/especially consumer capitalism. At one point he discussed mental disorders – including homosexuality. Naturally cigarettes loomed large throughout the narrative and he referenced more than once ‘the recent cancer scare’ which the tobacco companies where doing everything to undercut. Reading between the lines I suggest that the author simply didn’t believe the cigarettes caused cancer. One other thing that really jumped out at me – again throughout the book those being interviewed both within and outside the advertising industry constantly complained that US citizens consistently failed to conform to any standards that could be easily dealt with. They were just too individualistic. But, they hoped, they could tap into a deep need for them to be accepted by their peers and not be seen to be strange or ‘un-American’ and use this to produce more conformity in the market in order to more control sales. Finally I couldn’t help but smile as the author ruminated on the idea of ‘packaging’ political candidates in order to ‘sell’ them to the public – in other words the idea of political parties or individual politicians becoming ‘brands’ in their own right. As Mr Packard died in 1996 I’m guessing that that increasing humming sound is him revolving ever faster in his grave. As interesting read for a whole HOST of reasons and a very interesting insight indeed into the minds and the culture of 1950’s America. Recommended.